Our natural environment provides us with the essential services that we need for life, including air, water and food. Any deterioration in the quality of these elements can impact on our health and quality of life, and ultimately on our life expectancy.
Nowadays we are generally living longer than ever before, but environmental pollution continues to be one of the critical factors which impacts on both our life expectancy and our general health and wellbeing. The World Health Organization has estimated that for the EU-28 countries, 13% of deaths in 2012 (~ 630,000 deaths) were attributable to environmental factors. This varies significantly from country to country, but for Ireland the figure is also 13%, equivalent to 53 death annually per 100,000 population. The main diseases associated with these premature deaths are cancers, heart disease and stroke.
Whilst the impact on our life expectancy is significant, environmental pollution also reduces our quality of life, as living with illnesses such as cancers and heart disease impacts on our wellbeing. More than 20 million ‘healthy life years’ are estimated to be lost annually in the EU-28 countries as a result of the health impacts of environmental pollution.
Apart from direct influences of pollution on health, such as from air and water pollution, other elements of our environment also play an important role in supporting our health and wellbeing. For example, pollution and climate change can result in biodiversity loss, which can impact on agriculture (reduced pollinators can impact on crop yields). Climate change is also likely to lead to increased prevalence of flooding which can cause erosion of productive soils and result in the reintroduction into the environment of pollutants which have been trapped in soils and/or in river sediments.
In addition to the overall influence of environmental pollution, health inequity is also an issue across Europe, including in Ireland. People of lower socio-economic status tend to be disproportionately exposed to environmental pollution (such as air or noise pollution), and this may be exacerbated in the future without appropriate policies to protect those most vulnerable in our society. This area of inequity is a key focus of the ‘European Green Deal’ where the ambition is to implement a just transition to a more sustainable consumption and production model within our society.